Distant Voices: Pynchon’s Telephones
Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Thursday 8 June, from 11:15 to 11:45
Questions of communication and media are ever-present in Pynchon’s novels, and much has already been written on his elaborate analyses of how media technologies such as television, film and computers structure our society and our lives. In Information Multiplicity (1998) John Johnston singles out The Crying of Lot 49 as nothing less than the first novel about postmodern media society: “The opening pages of The Crying of Lot 49 assume a world interconnected – indeed saturated – by mass communications media: the postal system, television, cinema, radio, magazines, Muzak, shopping malls, freeways, and automobiles” (38).
There is, however, one ubiquitous medium that lacks not only from Johnston’s list, but from Pynchon studies and literary history in general: the telephone. The relative absence of this medium from Pynchon and literary studies probably derives from the fact that what is communicated through the telephone is rarely preserved, whereas the so-called Aufschreibesysteme (typewriters, gramophones, film etc.) and other storage media discussed by e.g. Friedrich Kittler, John Johnston, Sara Danius and others leave tangible material traces that more easily offer themselves up for analysis. But even though most phone conversations are not recorded for posterity, I will nevertheless argue that the telephone has left at least as lasting traces in society and literature as e.g. the medium of photography. Since its introduction in 1876, the phone has thoroughly restructured the social space that supplies literature with its topics as well as the media landscape that ensures its circulation, but nevertheless the complex relationship between telephones and literature remains underexposed.
The medium of the telephone is inextricably wired into The Crying of Lot 49: Oedipa’s story involves at least eight important phone conversations that drive the plot forward. In addition to its function as a plot engine, the medium of the telephone is invoked several times throughout the novel as an important metaphor for both loneliness and communication, as a very real cause for paranoia and as a synecdoche for the systemic nature of American society. In my paper I will analyze these various functions of the telephone in Lot 49, briefly contrasting Pynchon’s use of the telephone with The Great Gatsby, where phones also play an important but very different role.
The paper will conclude with a brief discussion of how Lot 49’s portrait of an underground communication network was a crucial inspiration for Ron Rosenbaum’s famous Esquire article “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” (1971). In this article, Rosenbaum exposed the incredible story of so-called phone phreaks: a secret society of (often blind) children who during the late 60s and early 70s learned to control the telephone network by whistling certain frequencies into the phone (true story!). Rosenbaum’s article was an important impetus for early computer hackers, and it went on to inspire Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to go into business together, which led to the foundation of Apple, which eventually resulted in the iPhone. Did Pynchon unwittingly play a part in the invention of the smartphone? Call me, and everything will be revealed.